Kathmandu-returned. No more incense-mingled woodsmoke, banners snapping in the wind, days stoned on cheap marijuana. Life sucks her in as if she’d never been away. Only embroidered blouses and handwoven skirts say stranger in a strange land, where she teaches English and American culture to endless waves of foreign students, advises them where to buy their futons, admires pictures of their families.
When they ask to see her family, she smiles and points.
“You and you and you. You’re my family,” she says and invites them to wherever she’s living, teaches the Muslims how to drink beer, hosts sushi parties, makes piñatas, wears sandals in snow.
She’s their lifeline, the one who knows, but often she finds herself adrift and invents explanations that seem to fit, at least have some logic, might well be.
“We are a mobile people,” she says to account for the elderly warehoused and drugged in nursing homes, stripped of identification, tied into wheelchairs and abandoned on freeways.
“We have the genes of pioneers. For this reason, we find it difficult to be responsible for our old ones. We may need to pack up all our belongings and go to the other side of the country at a moment’s notice. We live in tiny apartments in fragile buildings. It’s not really cruel,” she says to the perplexed, uncomprehending stares.
“Think of the story we read about the old Eskimo parents, left willingly on ice floes to await death by freezing, understanding they must not drag their children down. Each society copes as best it can.”
When her students find her poring over the personals column, hoping to find someone to sleep with and be her best friend, she says, “Ah, yes, well, these are our equivalents of the traditional go-betweens,” and they nod in recognition of a familiar cognate.
“We use video dating services, voice mail, personals like these. In recognition that we are a democracy, we welcome strong, sweet, mature, full-bodied vegetarian females seeking café-au-lait non-smokers. Shy jugglers who are into art, astrology and fringe music. Handsome, hardbodied SWM’s seeking love, honesty, and commitment leading to marriage and kids. Star Trek GWM’s ISO earthlings 20-40 for friendship and more (just as much as you want).”
She passes out pages from the personals.
“Choose someone you think you would like to date and tell them about yourself. Remember to use chronological transition words and begin a new paragraph each time you start a new topic.”
On days when her long braid is more blonde than silver, she wears the Kathmandu dresses, carved ivory combs, beads of carved wooden heads, each face different, smiling, somber, screaming with laughter, on a strong twisted cord of human hair.
“Please, Miss Alice. America is a so rich country. Why do so many people sleeping in the streets, eating out of garbage cans?”
“There is a lottery when babies are born,” she explains, writing words that might be unfamiliar on the small portable blackboard in her temporary classroom, carved out of a storage area in the basement.
“Those who are chosen in the lottery are trained all their lives for this activity. They are not fed as much or as well as other children so that their brains will be receptive to the lot in life which has been chosen for them.
“The children are neglected and passed from one unwilling family to another. Their caretakers neglect and beat them as they feel will best train them to fulfill their roles in society.
“Special schools are maintained for them so they will not be able to work and earn enough money to sleep indoors and buy food.
“These scapegoats, as we call them,” she says as she adds the word to their vocabulary list, “are spiritually invaluable for our country, ensuring that the rest of us work very hard so we can eat, sleep warm, and buy gasoline for our automobiles.”
Akiyo raises her hand. “I think is very cruel. Doesn’t your heart break, and your eyes weep hot tears for such poors?”
“We believe they go straight to Heaven,” she tells them. “It is a central tenet of our religion.”
She gives a test on this, five true/false, five multiple choice, three sentence completions, two fill-ins, and a short essay. The class breaks into a true bell curve, with as many thinking they understood as had no idea what was going on.
She worries a bit about these explanations that seem more and more true, realizing that others might find something wrong with them, but no one ever visits her classes to find out what is going on.
She sees that she is helping her students understand the unexpected oddities of their new home, and she embroiders the fabric of American society with ever more creative stitches.
Most of the students graduate after two or three extra semesters and return home, never having talked to anyone except their English teachers and the International Student Advisor.
As for Alice, sometimes, when the day is especially cold with thin rain, or when the spring sun is too bright on tender blossoms, she buries her face in the dresses she never washes, so never takes a chance on removing the smells of incense and camphorwood, smoke and marijuana. She has written a note and left it in her desk, asking to be cremated in the embroidered pink wedding dress, asking for the ashes to be put in the camphorwood box and taken, maybe, some day, back to Kathmandu.
Tree Riesener is the author of Sleepers Awake, a collection of fiction, winner of the Eludia Award, Sowilo Press, 2015 and The Hubble Cantos, Aldrich Press, 2016. Books to be published in 2017 are EK, (Cervena Barva Press), Quodlibet (Diaphanous Press), and Angel Fever, (Ravenna Press). Three previous chapbooks are Liminalog, Angel Poison and Inscapes. Her website is http://www.treeriesener.com. She is on Twitter and Facebook and loves to hear from readers.